Coastal Life Rafts: Eight-Model Evaluation
Part 2 In-the-water tests and detailed examinations of coastal life rafts from DBC, Plastimo, Switlik, West Marine and Winslow finds real differences in design, performance and equipment. Our ratings will help you make a sound, safe choice.
Last month we reported general findings from our 25-raft evaluation. Volunteer sailors, plus representatives of the US Coast Guard, participated. This month we consider eight coastal models; next month, in the final installment, offshore rafts are rated.
Coastal life rafts provide reduced capability compared to offshore rafts, but are generally lighter, have smaller pack sizes, and are often less expensive. For those who never venture far from shore and for those with limited room or budget, they represent a compromise they can live with. The key is making sure you can live with it.
The coastal raft concept is based on assumptions that close to shore you will be able to make it to a safe port before a major storm hits, or, if sinking for other reasons, such as collision or leak, that help is minutes away. But to be rescued quickly you need to communicate your distress. Experience shows that is not always possible. Whether 20 miles offshore or 500, you still need to survive until rescued and the raft and survival equipment must be up to the task.
In our evaluation, all but the West Marine have single tubes, which at the least do not provide as much freeboard or comfort. Switlik and Winslow, however, have two chambers (of differing designs, one a sleeve, the other a vertical bulkhead), which offer some backup protection against deflation, though as reported in Part 1, this solution is still not as desirable as two stacked tubes.
Our individual evaluations of the eight rafts follow. Except as noted, prices listed are the manufacturer’s list price for a six-person raft, packed in a valise, excluding any options, followed by an estimated discount price, where we could reliably obtain one. It pays to shop carefully.
DBC’s Life-Pac ($1,885) is a four-person single tube square raft with a single arch canopy. The stay-erect canopy arch (it doesn’t deflate if the main tube is punctured, a feature we prefer) provides the only reserve buoyancy to the single tube. It is equipped with four moderately sized V-shaped ballast bags (92.5 lbs. sea water capacity each, 370 lbs. total). Entry aids are minimal. Some testers missed the single loop of line hanging down at the entry that provides a foothold.
The entry door is a simple flap, hanging from the top with two cloth ties per side. An elastic loop at each bottom corner hooks over a rubber button on the exterior of the tube. It was only moderately weathertight. The painter leads to the entry, which is good, but the manually deployed conical drogue, co-located with the painter, positions the raft so that the entry faces wind and waves.
Testers described it as “close,” “small,” and “cramped” due to a lack of headroom and poor ventilation. Of the semi-transparent orange canopy, one tester said, “An orange complexion isn’t attractive on anyone.”
The interior lifelines made life aboard uncomfortable because they were stretched tight, cutting into the testers’ backs and making them more difficult to grasp.
There are no lights. The simple righting line was adequate for this small raft.
The SEP (survival equipment pack, illustrated in Part 1) was marginal, with no signaling equipment except for the defunct B.C.B. flashlight. The heaving line was thin, flat, braided poly that cut our hands—not ideal for a line with which you are expected to haul in a person.
The Plastimo Coastline ($2,315/$2,090) is a single-cell hexagonal raft. The canopy isn’t self-erecting. Once the fluorescent pink dual-color canopy is pumped up manually, the entry may be closed by dropping down the remaining half of the canopy and zipping it closed at the tube. In the fire hose test, the zipper leaked, but the canopy was otherwise weathertight. Testers described the interior as “claustrophobic” and “dark.”
Plastimo’s “tube-in-a-tube” construction is unique, with a separate lightweight air bladder inside an outer tube of more substantial material. A zipper around the interior gives access to the bladder. The reputed advantage is that you can retrieve the bladder from the tube and effect a repair from inside the raft, but with the single tube design of the Coastline, that wouldn’t be much help. In an attempt to ameliorate this failing, the Coastline bladder has a “spare emergency chamber.” The bladder is divided vertically in two; if the initially inflated outer chamber is punctured or starts leaking, you can immediately begin inflating the spare inner chamber without having to repair the puncture (using Plastimo’s low-performance manual pump). Of course, if the puncture comes from inside the raft, or otherwise goes through both chambers, then you’re stuck with removing, repairing, and replacing the bladder. Finding the leak quickly can be difficult and the entire operation isn’t as quick as a good repair clamp. This design does have the advantage of allowing almost immediate re-inflation after making a repair with the otherwise marginal patch kit.
There are three black ballast bags (98 lbs. each, 294 lbs. total). The combination of black bags, black bottom, and no retro-reflective material means this raft would be hard to see if overturned, a problem highlighted during the ill-fated Sydney-Hobart Race. With no drogue and minimal ballast, we have serious concerns about the stability of this raft.
Entry aids are a pair of rudimentary two-rung webbing “ladders” attached to the interior lifeline. These were taped to the tube with duct tape and not readily apparent. Entry over the 12" tube was not easy. Large pieces of duct tape also secured the lifelines, and the righting line to the tube and underside, making their use more difficult than necessary.
The short, 22' painter has a hand loop with the splice secured by a plastic cable tie with a sharp cut-off tail. Such sharp tails also were found on the lifelines, a cut hand waiting to happen. The raft knife, which should be available for immediate use in cutting the painter, is a folding knife. At best, the stiff folding action will slow you down; with cold or gloved hands it might be very difficult to open.
There is a red LED locator light on the canopy, but no interior light. Plastimo rafts are vacuum packed—a good feature.
The MD-1 is Switlik’s entry level raft ($3,195/$2,475). An octagonal, double-chamber, single-tube raft, the single arch canopy has inverted V entries on both sides. Entry aids are marginal—a two-rung webbing ladder with no ready grab handles. Inside there is an interior lifeline and a single piece of webbing stretched across the raft. Testers with short arms and legs had difficulty reaching this to help pull themselves in. Even in daylight, the red webbing used for entry aids throughout the Switlik line was difficult to see against the black raft.
While we appreciated the generous 1-3/8" width of the webbing used for Switlik’s lifelines, they do not run uninterrupted as on other rafts. Each tube section has its own short piece of lifeline, somewhat compromising their utility.
Our MD-1 was equipped with Switlik’s optional drop-in “heat-sealed inflatable floor” ($195). The two halves of this air-mattress-style floor were stored inside a clear pouch tied to the interior lifeline. The floor is inflated orally, and afterwards installation is more than a little cumbersome in a crowded raft.
The painter on this and all the Switlik valise-packed rafts is fitted with an easy-to-grip, sturdy metal handle. A threaded barrel lock on the handle could be used to secure the painter to the boat, but we fear that is not obvious. Moreover, the handle, together with the explicit instructions on the valise, encourage one to use it as a handhold while launching the raft rather than tying or clipping the painter to the boat. Switlik is the only manufacturer other than Survival Products (whose inshore raft we’ll discuss in a future issue), that doesn’t instruct the user to secure the painter to the vessel before launching.
Low headroom was even more of a problem with this raft. Testers called it, “extremely uncomfortable.” And once the floor is inflated, headroom is further reduced. The Switlik dual-color canopy is 4"-6" lower than most others. The canopy partially deflates if a tube cell or chamber is punctured.
Four wide, shallow ballast bags (97 lbs. each, 388 lbs. total) provided moderate resistance to capsizing. The self-deploying drogue orients the entries perpendicular to waves. The canopy partially collapsed under pressure from the fire hose. Water came in the unprotected zippers. There is no water collection device.
A water-activated light is attached to the tube at an inside corner of one entry which helps indicate the entry location, but leaves no exterior locator light when the raft is closed up. Despite the light, testers said the interior was too dark.
The coastal SEP includes a good USCG-approved flashlight, solving the interior light problem once you find it, and three SOLAS flares, but no signal mirror. There is no survival manual in the SEP, but Switlik hangs immediate action instructions from the tube.
Switlik CLR6 USCG Mk II and Switlik CGF6 SOLAS Mk II
The Switlik CLR6 USCG Mk II is the only approved coastal raft tested. Our configuration was the SOLAS version ($5,495) with SOLAS equipment, and a SOLAS “A” SEP, but the differences between it and the (considerably less expensive) USCG version ($3,945/$3,350) are minor.
This single tube, boat-shaped, elongated octagonal raft differs from others in two important respects: its dual-arch canopy and internal sleeve buoyancy tube design, described in Part 1.
It has dual semi-circular entries that are wide enough to provide cross-ventilation for the entire raft. A rigid boarding platform with a reinforced single rung ladder at the primary entry made boarding over the 13" tube pretty easy. A few testers, however, bruised their shins on the hard platform. The other entry has a double rung ladder as on the MD-1. The interior lifeline rises from its normal mid-tube level to a point on top of the tube at the center of the entries, providing a handhold of sorts. There is also a central strap as on the MD-1.
Inexplicably, the painter leads survivors to the alternate entry, which lacks the convenient platform of the primary entry. Nor are there any placards to point them to the other side.
The SOLAS raft had the longest painter at 125'; the CLR6’s painter is 50'. The raft knife was somehow bent back nearly 180° during deployment, rendering it almost useless.
The drogue lacks a swivel. Its 1/4" braided rode is attached beside the main entry, meaning the entry will partially face oncoming seas. It’s a good thing the raft proved very weathertight when closed up, with the door zipped up and a separate storm door on the SOLAS version secured with Velcro to the exterior lifelines. The USCG model does not have this storm door, so we’d expect leakage through the zippers based on the Switlik MD-1’s similarly zippered entry. Instructions for operating the doors hang from the canopy arches, along with immediate action instructions.
Ballast consists of a pair of very large, long, boxy bags along the long sides (253 lbs. each) and a pair of somewhat smaller bags at the ends (112 lbs.), giving a class-leading 730 lbs. total. Capsizing the CLR6 Mk II was noticeably more difficult than the more lightly ballasted rafts.
The dual arches provide good headroom throughout most of the raft, even with the SOLAS insulating layer installed. This dark blue light nylon cloth, however, is installed using small snaps, many of which came adrift during deployment.
The lithium-powered flashing locator light meets the latest USCG/SOLAS specification, the only such light in the rafts reviewed. The interior light is powered by the same battery. An unfortunate side effect is that the interior light dims when the exterior flashes on—most disconcerting and a potential nausea trigger. Both lights are switched, which we like.
The CLR6 Mk II was packed in a canister. Switlik’s canisters are the sturdiest tested. Deep molded handgrips at the corners ease handling. The painter plug is in a slot so that upon deployment the canister bottom will drop away from the painter—a good feature.
West Marine Coastal
While they have sold life rafts for years, West Marine’s technical expert, Chuck Hawley, was never satisfied with their moderately priced offerings. When the occasion arose to collaborate with Zodiac on the development of an exclusive offshore raft for West Marine, he jumped at the chance (we’ll cover it in Part 3). Its success fueled development of a coastal raft ($1,999), the only stacked tube coastal in this review.
The four-person, double-tube rectangular raft is spacious, with 4.5 sq. ft. per person. There are four V-shaped ballast bags (80 lbs. each, 320 lbs. total). The single-arch canopy has one semicircular entry that zips up with double zippers. Entry over the 9" bottom and 7" top tube is via a five-rung webbing ladder; the bottom rung is weighted with a plastic tube. There are no other handholds except for the furled door and interior lifeline. The ladder passes over the inflation cylinder and one tester was slammed against it by wave action, resulting in a sore knee.
Initial attempts to enter the raft resulted in it flipping over. Eventually, one person went to the opposite side to act as ballast and still two testers were unable to enter the raft without assistance. The addition of handholds would be a great improvement.
There is a very effective water collection V on the back side of the canopy, as well as a sleeved observation port that proved impossible to make watertight in our fire hose tests, a failing we had with many of these ports. There is a battery-operated exterior switched locator light, but no instructions.
The West Marine Coastal is available in 4- and 6-person sizes and are vacuum packed.
Winslow Super-Light Coastal
Winslow sent three coastal rafts, all variations on the same basic design. Winslow goes to rather extraordinary lengths to allow the buyer to tailor the raft to his needs and budget. The Canopied Coastal ($2,525/$2,075), Coastal Plus ($2,675/$2,225), and Premium Coastal ($4,145/$3,695) come with ascending magnitudes of added equipment and features, as well as a choice of two standard SEPs, “basic” and “extended.” In addition, the Winslow standard option sheet, covering the entire line, runs to 50 items, though many are included with the higher specification rafts.
Winslow’s coastal rafts are octagonal, dual-cell, single-arch, dual-color canopy designs. They are constructed of a bright yellow material. With five boxy ballast bags (83 lbs., 415 lbs. total), the rafts were moderately difficult to capsize. A “Cape Horn” option ($87) increases ballast to 640 lbs., making the raft very difficult to capsize. A length of line attached to each bag allows them to be tied up when desired.
The standard Winslow righting aid is a 2" strap with twisted loops of contrasting colors that is easy to grab and hold. Righting was easy. A water-activated “righting locator light” guides survivors to the right spot at night and provides some illumination.
Winslow’s entry aids feature a three-rung, center-supported ladder; a tube-mounted grab handle, and a unique “interior assist ladder,” all of easily grasped 2" webbing. These made entry over the 13" tube relatively easy. Standard lifelines, inside and out, are 1" webbing; optional 2" webbing ($75) is a better choice.
The entries on all Winslow rafts are similar in design. A pair of flaps are furled up to the arch tube. To close, you zip across the bottom to the center, and down from the top to the center. If needed, there is a snap-buckle for added security. A generous storm flap with Velcro covers all the zippers and proved effective in preventing water entry.
With the entry flaps open, the raft is very airy. If there’s a drawback it’s that only half the raft is shaded. On the Canopied Coastal and Canopied Coastal Plus, the only ventilation with the canopy closed is via the double-acting center zipper. Velcro ties allow you to tie back the two edges to form a diamond-shaped opening. The Premium has an opening view port in front and a zippered semicircular rear door for cross ventilation, which is far better. We like the rear door because it also provides ready access to the drogue attachment point. An integral inflatable floor is standard on the Premium, optional ($200-$300 depending upon size) on the others.
Both the Plus and Premium rafts have three view ports. Under direct water pressure, the view ports leaked a bit through the stitching; Winslow said they have minimized this in production rafts (ours were prototypes).
The Winslow canopies can be pulled back completely and secured, exposing the entire raft, which could be more comfortable at times and useful in a recovery direct from the raft. The effective self-deploying conical drogue is positioned opposite the entry on a 100' rode with two swivels.
Immediate action instructions hang from the arch, with bold text on bright yellow stock with a red striped border—impossible to miss. They were deemed the most complete and easiest to understand. A “Quick-Grab” Pelican Magnum flashlight is mounted on the canopy arch in plain view. Also tethered in the raft is the bailer (a somewhat oversize 2-gallon collapsible bucket) and the manual inflation pump. We think not having to dig into the SEP for these critical items is a good idea.
A Winslow innovation is their “Store-Saf” storage pockets. Standard on the Premium, optional on the others ($84), these Velcro-closure bags are arrayed around the raft and allow you to get the survival supplies off the floor, secured, and organized. We had concerns that they would prove uncomfortable to lean against when filled with equipment and supplies, but for the most part that wasn’t the case.
The Premium Coastal was also equipped with a prototype auto-deploying 406 MHz EPIRB (meaning it automatically starts transmitting as soon as the raft is deployed). This will be included as standard, building on another lesson from Sydney-Hobart. Delivery of production units isn’t expected until near year’s end. In the meantime, Winslow will pack an ACR 406 MHz EPIRB that will be swapped out for the auto-deploying beacon at the first service.
Winslow’s webbing painter has a brass snap clip and hand loop at the end, making quick attachment to the vessel a cinch. The overly generous 100' painter leads to the end of the boarding ladder where it is secured with another snap clip. The webbing allows Winslow to use a slotted safety knife that is easy to use.
Besides the normal valise and canister options, Winslow offers a “Pelican-Pac” waterproof case option ($230), made by Pelican. Winslow coastal rafts are available in 4-, 6- and 8-person sizes. The “basic” SEP includes a decent selection of signaling aids; the “extended” SEP includes some water and food.
We applaud West Marine’s efforts to produce a double-tube raft for coastal use at an affordable price. It does, however, have some deficiencies, most of which we could overlook if everyone could get in the raft unaided. If this problem was rectified, the West Marine coastal could be considered a very good value.
West Marine promotes the raft as an inexpensive solution for ORC racing and there it may find a near perfect fit. For a crew of active racers in good shape, and where quick rescue is almost assured, the West Marine raft in its present form represents an acceptable solution and is superior to the single tube rafts. It isn’t, however, particularly light or compact.
The Switlik CLR6 USCG Mk II is well-made and sturdily constructed. We like the sleeved design. Even if is isn’t 100% effective at keeping water out, it is a huge improvement over other single-tube designs. The entry aids are a big advantage. The double-arch canopy makes for a much more comfortable raft, though we prefer the more weathertight entry used on the SOLAS version. Its biggest drawbacks are weight, pack size and, to a lesser degree, price. A bulky coastal raft that weighs in at more than some offshore rafts doesn’t make a lot of sense to us.
The Switlik MD-1 also is very well made, but has inadequate boarding aids and proved very uncomfortable due to the low canopy. We thought it had too many deficiencies for its price.
The biggest problem with the DBC and Plastimo is that they are single-cell designs. In addition, the DBC was not easy to board, the drogue orients the entry toward oncoming waves, and the interior lifelines were uncomfortable. The Plastimo has even more shortcomings, including an arch that doesn’t auto-inflate, a poor pump, and the absence of a drogue or retro-reflective material.
Despite the drawbacks of the single-tube design and single-arch canopy, the upgraded Winslow Super-Light Canopied Coastals—the Plus and Premium—are our top choices. Our testers, to a man and woman, felt the same way. Winslow’s compact, lightweight pack; attention to detail; unique features, and overall quality are compelling. If you’re on a budget, the base Winslow Canopied Coastal would be our choice, but we strongly recommend the optional view ports.
A coastal raft is necessarily a compromise. We’d only consider one if size, weight or price are critical concerns. On a small boat, there simply may not be room for an offshore model. A coastal raft, however, is still much better than no raft at all.
Next month, in the final installment of this series, we’ll take a look at the offshore life rafts and present our vision of the perfect life raft.
Contacts- DBC Marine Safety Systems, 101-3760 Jacombs Rd., Richmond, BC V6V 1Y6 Canada; 604/278-3221; www.dbcmarine.com. Plastimo, Lewmar, Inc., 6475 Parkland Dr., Sarasota, FL 34243; 800/946-3527. Switlik Parachute Co., 1325 E. State St., Trenton, NJ 08609; 609/587-3300. FAX: 609-586-6647, www.switlik.com. West Marine, PO Box 50070, Watsonville, CA 95077; 800/262-8464, www.westmarine.com. Winslow LifeRaft Co., 11700 Winslow Dr., Lake Suzy, FL 34266; 800/838-3012, www.winslowliferaft.com.
Editor’s note: Doug Ritter is a Practical Sailor contributing editor and the editor of the Equipped To Survive (www.equipped.org) web site.